Sandra Birdsell

“At Home” by Sandra Birdsell

I used to live in the Red River Valley. I grew up in a small prairie town, moved on and lived in several others. You know the type: one grain elevator, railroad tracks, abandoned train station, general store, and a curling rink with eight sheets of artificial ice. The kind of place people say that, if you blink when you drive by, you’ll miss it. When I moved to Winnipeg, and some people said that the same comment applied. But they were just tourists skimming across the valley in their boats or trolling with empty hooks. Valley, they said. Where are the hills?

True, one must travel far to find them- but they’re there. Comforting little brown humps on the shoreline. Why did I continue to live in Winnipeg in the Red River Valley? It was God in a CBC Tee-shirt, calling to make me think.

I had contemplated moving to Vancouver where they tell me that the difference between Vancouver and Toronto, is that in Toronto, people dress up in bizarre costumes and pretend they’re crazy, while in Vancouver they really are crazy. I don’t mind the crazy people in Vancouver. They’re like wild flowers on the side of a mountain, pretty to look at from a distance but never meant to be picked and taken home. But I find that when I’m in Vancouver after three days I no longer see the mountains. All I want to do is find a quiet place, huddle down in the sand, and stare at the ocean. And the same thing happens to me when I’m at the east coast.

Why did I live there? I asked a friend. Grasshoppers and crickets sang from either side of the dirt road. It wasn’t quite a full moon but bright enough for long shadows. Perfect night to play Dracula. It was my turn to wear the cape. The question ate at me, interfered with the game. On the horizon Winnipeg shimmered pink and still. You live here, he said, because you’re short. You’re close to the ground and should a big wind come along, you’d be safe. And yet, you feel tall. Naw, that’s not it, my daughter said.

It was a Sunday and the question rankled as I made my weekly trip through the forest where thick, dark trees wrestled the granite boulders for soil. I pushed the speed limit to get to the lake before all the others and finally I found my spot, huddled down into the sand and stared out across the water. Why do I live here? Then the answer came to me. Living in the Red River Valley was like living at the bottom of a lake.

When you lived at the bottom of a lake you could expect cracks in your basement walls, especially in River Heights, where they could afford cracks and underpinning and new basements. I liked the cracks. The wind whistled through them, loosened the lids on my peach preserves, made the syrup ferment, and the mice grew tipsy. In the potato bin sprouts grew on wrinkled skin, translucent, cool sprouts. They climbed up the basement walls, pushed their way through air vents, and up the windows in my kitchen. I didn’t have to bother about hanging curtains.

And time was different there. The days piled on top of lake sediments, shifted after a good storm, so that yesterday slipped out from beneath today. And even last Friday with all its voices, would sometimes bob up from the bottom and it was possible to lose track of tomorrow. You could just say, to hell with tomorrow and go out and play Dracula.

When you lived at the bottom of a lake you couldn’t pin your ancestors down with granite monuments. They slid out of their graves and worked themselves across the underground on their backs, using their heels as leverage. They inched their way into town, until they rested beneath the network of dusty roads and then they lay there on their backs, reading stories to me from old newspapers.

Now this was something tourists could never discover as they roared across the valley in their power boats, churning up the water with their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it view of my place. Sometimes a brave one would leap from the boat, come down and move in next door. I’d seen it happen. They became weak and listless, like flies trapped inside a house at the end of summer. And you’d see them walking along the highway in scuba gear muttering to themselves or rowing across the lake in search of a hill.

I’ll admit, sometimes it was nice to surface, to take off the cape and put on my respectable prairie jacket and boots and do a walking tour of Halifax, sniff a wild mountain flower in Vancouver, get a stiff neck looking up at all those skyscraper in Toronto, or a three-day party headache in Montreal. But inevitably my eyes grew tired, glazed, and like a sleepwalker I awoke to find myself crouched down beside an ocean, a lake, a river, and I knew it was time to get back there — to get down in the basement and breathe the wind in the cracks of my walls where, nestled up against the foundation of my house, was the pelvic bone of an ancestor.

“At Home” was broadcast on CBC’s Morningside, as “Why I Live Where I Live,” and was subsequently published in “Morning Side Papers,” by Peter Gzowski, published by McClelland & Stewart, and in “Writing Home,” a PEN Canada Anthology published by McClelland & Stewart.

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